When many people think about sensory play, they often think about it in the context of kids with autism or sensory processing disorders. While special needs kids like these can definitely benefit from this kind of play, any child can enjoy it.  And while you can spend a lot of money on sensory play products through online websites, there are also a lot of great ways you can DIY it and save yourself a ton of money while giving your children some great play experiences.

Water Play

Water is a great method for sensory play for autistic or other special needs children — but any child will enjoy it, especially on those long hot days of summer vacation.  There are some great ways to let your child have water play right in your own back yard — small kiddie pools, homemade slip-and-slides done with a garden hose and  long sheets of plastic (like the kind you get from a home improvement store for gardening) and good old stand-bys like water balloons and squirt guns.  The possibilities here are limited only by the space available and your own imagination.

Homemade Dough

Doughs not only help to build up fine motor skills and hand strength, they are also a wonderful way to give your child some great sensory experiences.  While you can buy these at the store, there are also ways that you can make them homemade for a fraction of the cost.  To make homemade dough, mix together 1 cup of water, ¼ cup salt, ½ cup water and a few drops of food coloring and keep mixing until the mixture forms into a dough.  If you want to “specialize” the dough, you can add things like essential oils or glitter or natural items like seashells, polished stones or dried wildflowers to make it uniquely your own – and give your child a unique sensory experience.

Homemade Sensory Table

Sensory tables are a great way to allow your child to have great sensory experiences in a fairly controlled sort of way (though be warned — play with these sensory tables can still be pretty messy!). What is great about these tables is the amazing variation that they will allow. You can fill them with water, dry beans, uncooked rice, sand, Jell-O, cooked and cooled pasta or even shaving cream or whipped cream.  Then give them toys like small boats or cars, plastic shovels and buckets or small toy animals, dinosaurs or fish and let them play to their heart’s content.

Homemade Paints

Painting is another activity with a high potential for sensory experiences. Most kids will love to really get into the paint, using their fingers and hands to make the paintings; it is even possible to roll out a long piece of butcher’s paper, have your child take off his socks and shoes and walk barefoot in the paint then walk on the paper to make “foot paintings”.

You also don’t need to bother with a brush. Apart from fingers, hands and feet, there are plenty of there are plenty of other creative ways to paint! Dip the end of toilet paper rolls into paint and let them create interesting patterns of the circles. Give them slices of fruit (such as lemon) and let them dip that into the paint then make a pattern on the paper.  Products like household sponges or natural objects like pine needles are also great for making cool designs.

Making the paint itself is also incredibly easy. For every one cup of flour, add 1 ¼  cups water and ⅛ cup of salt plus as much food coloring as desired. Stir this together on low heat in a sauce pan until it comes out smooth and then let it cool and store in a bottle with an airtight lid.

Smelling Bottles

The sense of smell is something forgotten when sensory play is mentioned, but it, too, can be another powerful vehicle for sensory experiences.  One great way to invoke this sense is to make up some homemade smelling bottles. To so this, simply stick a ball of cotton into a small, stoppered bottle and then add a few drops of any strong-smelling substance, such as lemon dish soap, lavender essential oil or Vicks chest rub.  You can play any number of games with these bottles. For instance, you can have a group of children over, give out matching sets of scented bottles (for instance, two which are scented with eucalyptus, two more which have cinnamon oil) and have them try to find the child with the same scent as theirs just by using their sense of smell.

Musical Swings

Music is another important way kids can experience the world and when combined with the gentle rocking motion of a swing (or hammock), this can be a great sensory activity as well.  Again, it’s easy to do.  Choose a quiet corner of your yard (or on your back porch or the rec room) to set up a hammock or swing. While your child is on it, have a CD player nearby and play music for them to listen to. Get creative and don’t be afraid to mix it up a little, with Mozart one day, then Celtic folk music or West African drumming the next.  Kids will really go crazy for this kind of activity.

In short, sensory play doesn’t have to be elaborate – or expensive – to be effective for your child, whatever their needs may be.  These simple, DIY projects can provide some amazing sensory play for your child this summer and are simple, fun and very friendly to your family’s budget.